As someone who profoundly dreaded the prospect of a Trump presidency, and voted (albeit reluctantly) for Hillary, I wanted to write a concession of sorts. It may seem silly to do so, given that I wasn’t, you know, running for office myself, but some of my friends and fellow citizens seem unwilling to publicly acknowledge what’s happened, so I want to do my part for healing.
I wish Donald Trump well. I really do. Not in the sense that I want him to enact any of his more outlandish or unconstitutional proposals (which, frankly, still horrify me), but in the sense that we’re all Americans, and I want my home to be a nice place to live for my family and friends, and even for people with whom I disagree, and people I haven’t met yet. So I have to swallow my pride and wish him a presidency that is somehow good for America.
Having said that, America, you’ve got some ‘splainin to do—on both sides of the aisle.
For starters, Democrats. Why did you think Hillary would be a successful candidate? Why, why, why, why, why? All of these fantasies about her winning in a blowout were always just fantasies—plenty of Americans made their mind up about her 24 years ago, and nobody really likes to change their mind, especially when someone else tells them they have to. Like it or not, people decided long ago that they disliked her, and some of their reasons were, in fact, valid—the presidency is not a 2-for-1 deal, and someone who wasn’t elected or appointed by an elected official probably shouldn’t have been crafting public policy in secret on an issue like health care—so there’s been a bit of a ritual going-through-the-motions about all of her subsequent efforts in the public sphere, and all the investigations she’s faced. Nobody who disliked her ever got a truly convincing reason to change their mind. Unless she had literally made peace across the globe as secretary of state (and, let’s be honest, she did tend to rattle the sabre instead) she was always going to face an upper ceiling to her popularity—and that was the real glass ceiling in this election. Plus, you were faced with an adversary with huge and glaring problems in his personal behavior, but you’d nominated someone whose apparent tolerance of her own husband’s behavior left her ill-suited to really hammer him on these issues. That's like the Republicans nominating Romney to fight Obamacare. Another woman—say Elizabeth Warren—would have mopped the floor with the Donald’s toupee.
Because here’s the thing: voters crave candidates who, at the very least, appear authentic. We’ve reduced our political thinking to an absurdly simple right-left axis that’s literally a holdover from the French Revolution, and the pundits tell you that all you have to do is be left enough to win the primaries and center enough to win the general election, and it’s a load of horseshit. No politicians really win by doing that. When Michael Dukakis rode in the tank, it seemed fake; when John Kerry went skeet shooting, it seemed fake. Everyone knew they wouldn’t have been doing those things if it weren’t for the cameras, and the chance to appear to be doing them. And Hillary’s always come off as somewhat calculating, even by political standards—the type of person who thinks that if they check all the right boxes, and look good on paper, nobody will have a reason to oppose them. (I’ve tried to be that person, too, so I can relate, at least.) Politicians don’t win that way; they win by being themselves, by saying to the electorate “This is who I am, take it or leave it.” That’s why Bernie Sanders would’ve been a far superior candidate. That’s why Obama did better than Kerry or Gore, and better than Hillary—his name was a true political liability, but he never changed it to win an election, and he used it proudly to swear his Inaugural Oath.
Also, please tone down the identity politics already. (No, wait. Hear me out.) There is, particularly in certain Democratic circles, a tendency to see people first and foremost as the sum of their group identities: male or female or trans- or cis- or whatever else; person-of-color or white or what-have-you. The inevitable corollary of that is a tendency to assume that someone “should” vote a certain way based on their group identities, or that a candidate “should” automatically win a certain percentage of the vote based on same, that someone like Caitlyn Jenner or Omorosa “shouldn’t” ever vote Republican, as if you know better than them what their priorities should be, and what emotions should most move them. This is a cancer on the body politic. Yes, everyone notices these things about others, and yes, certain classes of people have been historically disadvantaged, but we want to get away from that! (I hope.) And the true test of our progress is how quickly we see each other as individuals, as unique human beings, and not as the sum total of their identities. (Although Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech has been quoted ad nauseum, I have to bring it up here because it is the guiding star for behavior in this area: we have to work towards judging everyone solely by the content of their character. Yes, like all standards, it is impossible to reach, but we have to keep trying.)
We have to keep trying, for two reasons: 1) The inevitable corollary of minority identity politics is majority identity politics. If you don’t aspire to elections whose sole criteria of success is whether or not we elect the right person, if you are at all interested in breaking a historic precedent purely for the sake of breaking it (and then clapping yourselves on the back just for doing so), you are signaling to certain elements of society that you are hypocrites, that you do not in fact want people to be judged fairly: you just want to invert the prior power structures and create new ones that suit you. And by trying to do so in a democracy, you will have built your own glass ceiling, because there will always be more votes in the majority than there are in the minority. (I’ve worked in companies where my minority and female coworkers weren’t getting a fair shake based on those factors—but I’ve also worked in places where I, as a white male, wondered if I wasn’t getting opportunities for promotion because I wasn’t “diverse” enough. Neither situation was pleasant.) Also, 2) It leads you to assume the worst of whoever opposes you. There’s a smug comfort to saying someone else is racist/sexist/homophobic, etc., but when you assume the worst of someone, it always, always, always rubs them the wrong way. The best way to win isn’t by conquering enemies, or by de-friending them on Facebook when they don’t agree with your assessments. (This only turns yourself into the right’s caricature of you—an overly-sensitive person who can’t engage in public dialogue without “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.”) The best way to win is by turning enemies into friends. To do that, you have to assume a certain amount of good faith on their part; you have to acknowledge that, if you were in their shoes, you may well have made the exact same decisions they made.
But I’d be more than remiss if I didn’t say something to the Republicans. Republicans, Republicans, Republicans. You, too, have condemned yourselves to squeaker elections, to late nights eyeing returns from Florida and Ohio, to elections where you win the Electoral College but lose the popular vote. Why? Because lately you have been far more interested in winning than you have been in actually, you know, governing.
By my estimation, the last Republican president who actually governed was Reagan. That is to say, he had a set of ideals that he thought were best, and he sought to win, but he also sought to be a little above the fray afterwards, because he knew he was the president of all Americans, not just of the ones who voted for him. He never would have shut down the government out of sheer spite.
Since Reagan, there’s been a bit of a tawdry triumphalism about the GOP, a sore loserdom and a sorer winnerdom, a “fuck ‘em—they didn’t vote for us” mentality that ignores cities and does indeed leave the losers thinking, “Well, he’s not my president.” You’re never going to have a Reagan-in-’84 steamroller of an election again so long as you have that mentality; you, too, are never going to turn enemies into friends.
What’s worse, you are so out-of-whack on the winning that you have no claim whatsoever to be a party of principle. It appears you have sold your soul to a man who can convincingly fake authenticity better than anyone out there, a man who’s spent a lifetime building facades, and then hiding behind them until they crumble, and rebuilding them elsewhere. You impeached a man for lying about consensual sex, only to go on and elect a man who may well be a sexual predator. You would be wise to at least pay a little more attention to identity politics; you cannot ignore or belittle or talk over minority concerns and ignore their very real pain and then wonder why they don’t vote for you. (Former provocateur and recently-woke pundit Glenn Beck seems to understand this, at least; he has learned that he can’t just talk, that he has to listen to people whose experiences he can never feel himself.) I’ve heard plenty of stories of minority friends who were treated unjustly by police; I’ve heard plenty of stories from women who have been victims of sexual assault and abuse, and are understandably uncomfortable when they see a man behave the way the Donald has, and then win election to the highest office in the land. You may not share someone else’s feelings, but you can’t blindly discount them and then expect them to listen to you. You can’t ignore the pain of the rape survivor, or the family member of a police shooting victim, and act all surprised when they say #NotMyPresident.
In short, Republicans, if you focus solely on winning arguments and elections, while ignoring the fact that you then have to govern the losers, you will end up destroying yourselves with your hollow victories. The only Republicans in the last few decades who’ve had any real constructive ideas about actually doing something once they got into power—something other than attempting to starve the government until it starts kicking and screaming—have been Herman Cain and Steve Forbes. Both of them sought fairer and more straightforward taxation—and both were shot down early. (Cain’s national sales tax is actually an idea that’s long, long, long overdue; it will be an immense good to the body politic if we can truly say that everyone pays for the government, and everyone benefits from it.)
And here’s the thing, Republicans—we do need government. Markets work well, to a point; personal responsibility is great, to a point. Because there will always, always, always be at least some people who are operating in bad faith, who are only too happy to use wealth and power and privilege simply to amass more wealth and power and privilege. There will always be bullies; the answer to bullying isn’t to fault the weak for their weakness, and their inability to protect themselves, but rather to protect the weak, and to give them a chance to grow strong. Because if we don’t—if we are only a government of, by, and for the strong and powerful and wealthy, we truly are no better than Nazi Germany, and we'll eventually end up that way.
Throughout his business career, and on the campaign trail, Donald Trump showed signs of being a bully. That can be seductive; if you don’t feel powerful (and many in America don’t), latching on to someone who seems to project power seems like the best option. If we have, in fact, elected a bully to the highest office in the land, our first best hope is for him to do whatever work he needs to do behind the façade to grow his heart, and have a change of heart, to realize, like Reagan, that he is in fact the president of all Americans, and that the best way to build a lasting legacy is to be a good winner, to shed the temporary trappings of shabby triumphalism and govern with the grace and magnanimity that converts enemies to friends. (If someone like George Wallace—perhaps the most presidential candidate in history—can have a change of heart, surely it’s possible for Trump.) To his credit, Trump showed signs of that in his victory speech; for as much as I dreaded seeing him up there, I had to admit he looked somewhat presidential.
We can’t truly know what’s in anyone’s heart, so as a backstop to hope, we need to trust laws, to trust government as being bigger than human whims and failings. The presidency, as Obama mentioned in his absolutely stellar remarks yesterday, is bigger than any person, and bigger than any ego. There are, certainly, reasons to be truly pessimistic about this election: we have yet another president who lost the popular vote; we have a president who, if not racist, does seem too comfortable with their support. And there are reasons to be cynical. (The cynic in me still says Trump’s a con man; the super cynic says the establishment is playing the long con, throwing him the presidency now so that, if we do go through a deep economic collapse, we can throw Trump to the wolves and put the presidency back in more familiar hands.) But there are reasons to be truly optimistic: we’ve had yet another peaceful transfer of power. Both of 2016’s attempted coronations—Jeb Bush’s, and Hillary Clinton’s—have failed, and we have a leader who was indubitably elected by the voters. And what’s more, Trump does seem like he could be a man who will not govern as he ran. We need to keep an eye on him, yes, but we must at least allow him a chance to grow into his role. We cannot afford to wait two years, or four years, to be happy—especially since we will then be paranoid about losing our gains in yet another two or four years. We need to learn to be happy now.
- Gerald Brennan